Year after year in the polls the American public rates lack of discipline as the No. 1 problem facing the schools. But there are growing indications that many of those who actually run the schools and follow their progress closely now see violence as either declining or leveling off.
A poll taken for Indiana's 123,000 member Phi Delta Kappa professional educators organization last fall found that only 16 percent of the nation's teachers rate discipline as a ``very serious'' problem. And while a National Education Association (NEA) survey of teachers in 1979 showed 74 percent felt that discipline problems impaired the effectiveness of their teaching, the figure had dropped to 45 percent by the time of the last survey in 1983.
``What we're hearing from school administrators pretty much all over the country is that students today are taking school much more seriously, that there is less violence and vandalism, and that students are becoming more self-disciplined because they see education as more important to them,'' says American Association of School Administrators (AASA) spokesman Gary Marx.
``My sense is that the period when you had the highest crime in the schools really ended in the late 1970s,'' observes Dr. Robert J. Reubel who heads up the nonprofit, Texas-based National Alliance for Safe Schools. But he says he also sees a growing tolerance by school officials of ``unruly'' behavior.
``I suppose school violence is down, but it varies so from district to district and it's still too much,'' cautions Alfred Regnery, administrator of the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Most educators readily admit that their conclusions are based more on overall impressions than hard numbers. The last comprehensive data-gathering effort was the National Institute of Education's Safe Schools Study in 1978, which reported serious problems. That study suggested that close to 3 million students were victims of crimes each month. It was part of what prodded President Reagan early last year to take up the fight for safer schools with fresh intensity, urging a return to ``old-fashioned discipline.''
University of Illinois sociologist David J. Bordua views the lack of any national clamor for a follow-up study to the Safe Schools report as a positive sign.
``We tend not to repeat these studies if there isn't a big outcry -- it's one of the reasons it's difficult to ever discover that things are going better.''
But school violence statistics have been strongly lambasted in recent years by many in the education field for failing to measure degree or to distinguish between crime and discipline problems. ``One school's assault is another school's fight,'' says Dr. Rubel. ``And vandalism to a cop implies malicious intent while a school may list a window broken for any reason as vandalism.''
Whatever the numbers really are these days, most involved in this field say they are heartened by the positivie efforts they see. ``I think there's a [school violence] problem that's being minimized, but there is a trend toward much more attention to this issue -- of stronger and more humane concern,'' observes George Nicholson, director and chief counsel of Pepperdine University's National School Safety Center.
Regarded as one of the most hopeful signs is the development in recent years in many school districts of democratically derived, uniform, written rules of conduct that are clearly communicated to students and parents and that carry very specific penalties. Such groups as the American Federation of Teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union have pushed hard for such codes.
The five-year-old student handbook of rules in Springfield, Ill., for instance,is consideredone of the nation's best and toughest examples. Any student found carrying a set of school keys or anything, including a pocket knife, which might be construed as a weapon, is subject to an automatic 10-day suspension. And school officials, in cracking down, have begun to expel more students -- though only after each case goes through a broadly representative review committee.
``Our kids know right up front what we expect and what's going to happen if they get out of line,'' says Dr. Robert Hill, Springfield's director of instruction. ``We feel we have a much better handle now on student discipline.''
As one example of progress, he cites the virtual elimination of smoking in Springfield schools. Though once allowed in designated areas, it became so hard for officials to distinguish among tobacco, marijauna, and hashish that they decided on a total ban. Anyone caught is assigned to two days of in-house suspension. ``We've pretty much wiped out the problem,'' says Dr. Hill.
The University of Illinois's Dr. Bordua, who notes that Chicago's lengthy student rulebook reads like a ``collective bargaining agreement of General Motors,'' sees the move toward clearer and fairer rules nationally as a sign of school administrators' recognition that they are large bureaucracies that need to be governed by the rule of law.
``At first there were cries of, `Oh, we're going to spend all our time in hearings,' but that simply hasn't happened except in unusual cases,'' he says.
A number of other things are helping school administrators keep crime in the schools down. These include an enormous increase over the last several years in plain-clothes school security guards, closer cooperation among schools, juvenile courts, police, and lawyers, and the recent US Supreme Court decision allowing school officials freer grounds for student searches.
NEA spokesman Howard Carroll calls it a balanced decision that should strengthen administrators' hands, particularly in drugs. ``I don't think teachers want to be involved in taking the initiative in the search.''
The National Safety Center's Mr. Nicholson says he sees more help, too, in the growing recognition nationally that a school system is obliged not just to educate but to provide a safe environment where students can learn. California stipulated as much in its 1982 safe schools amendment which this lawyer suggests may well serve as a national model.